Thursday, March 15, 2012

Joseph Gratz, the First Troop and the War of 1812

Members of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry visited the Rosenbach Museum & Library on March 4, 2012, to honor their former member Joseph Gratz.

Joseph Gratz (1785-1858), one of Rebecca's younger brothers, was what was once called a "clubbable" man; that is, he was socially adept (not boring) and thus suitable for club membership. In the course of his life Jo would join the Masons, the Athenaeum and the exclusive Philadelphia Club. He was also an officer of his synagogue, a corporate director and on the board of at least one charity -- offices which in those days must have seemed much like being in a men's club.

What might be seen as one of his first clubs was the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, which he joined in 1809, during the unsettled times leading up to the War of 1812. The First Troop, today arguably the oldest military unit in continuous service to the nation, was founded in 1774 by a group of men who already knew each other from various social clubs. It would retain its clubby atmosphere. Where most young men of Jo's social class were interested in obtaining an officer's commission, he preferred to be a private among his friends and peers.

For the first few years in which Jo was a member, the Troop carried out its usual ceremonial assignments (escorting VIPs, for example) and took on a few military duties -- for instance, guarding the arsenal in 1812 when a plot to blow it up threatened. But the War was very far away until the late summer of 1814.

On August 26th, news reached the city that Washington, DC, had been burned, and the fear that the British planned to burn Philadelphia took hold. Committee of Defense was formed to build fortifications, the militia was activated and the First Troop offered its services to Brigadier-General Joseph Bloomfield, commander of the Fourth Military District, Philadelphia.

The Gratz family responded with its characteristic good citizenship. Simon, the eldest brother and the head of the family, participated in the civilian defense effort, as did another brother Jacob. The youngest brother, Benjamin, a second lieutenant in the Washington Guards, marched with his unit to an encampment outside the city at Kennett Square. Jo would go farther afield with the First Troop.

Brigadier-General Bloomfield had immediately assigned vedette duty to the First Troop. (Vedettes, in this case, were mounted troops in outlying areas doing reconnaissance.) Capt. Charles Ross and thirty vedettes, including Jo Gratz, established their headquarters at Mount Bull, near Elkton, MD, where they had a clear view of the northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay. Lookout posts were set up, patrols organized, relay stations located on the road to the city. Ross's vedettes communicated each day with the encampment at Kennett Square and with Philadelphia. In one of her letters to Jo during this period, Rebecca told him how the children in her neighborhood "watched out for the vedettes."

On September 14th, Charles Biddle, the Chairman of the city's Committee of Defense, wrote to Capt. Ross at Mount Bull that the stagecoach from Baltimore had not arrived the previous evening nor the mail packet that day. He ordered that vedettes take up positions south along the Chesapeake towards Baltimore to learn what they could of the situation there. In fact, on September 13th, the British had begun their bombardment of Fort McHenry. When news of the attack reached Philadelphia, it seemed to confirm the fears that other cities would soon fall victim to the British.

Rebecca Gratz spent this time in a state of anxiety, caring for her sister Sarah who was in the midst of a manic episode and worrying about her brothers on active duty. Nevertheless, she hoped that the family could be reunited for the High Holidays. A letter dated September 28th indicates that Jo and Ben had both been home recently, probably having been given leave for Yom Kippur on the 24th.

The military crisis ended in December when it became clear that after its failure to take Baltimore, the British fleet had sailed away (some ships to Halifax, others to Jamaica) and Philadelphia was out of danger. The First Troop returned to the city on December 12, 1814, ending its service in the War of 1812.

Jo resigned from the Troop when he reached the age of thirty in 1815, but the First Troop would remember him. In 1853, he and the other surviving participants in the Mount Bull Campaign were made honorary members for their service during the War of 1812.

Jo Gratz would be a businessman, active in civic, charitable and Jewish affairs in the city throughout his life and, as mentioned above, a very active clubman. Among his effects, after his death, was a superior wine cellar and numerous boxes of fine cigars, testament to his lifelong attachment to good living and good company.

Today the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry is part of the Pennsylvania National Guard. It has most recently deployed to Bosnia and Iraq and will again deploy in the next twelve months to an active theater of military operations.

(Information about the Troop in the War of 1812 is derived from History of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, issued by the Pennsylvania National Guard, Troop of Philadelphia Cavalry, 1875. Rebecca's letters are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Happy 231st to Rebecca Gratz

Rebecca Gratz was born on March 4, 1781, six months before the Battle of Yorktown, and died during the Grant administration. She is commemorated for her good works, but today it seems fitting to honor her for her letter-writing.

Rebecca's letters begin in 1798 and end in 1866, spanning the antebellum period and the Civil War. They provide a window into the era from the perspective of an active, intelligent woman close to the center of the nation's social and political life.

This year, I lift a birthday toast to Rebecca, acknowledging her charitable and educational contributions but especially her writings. I also offer a second toast to all those who preserved her letters over two centuries and have thereby given us a wonderful cultural and historical resource for studying America during her lifetime.
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